Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Yesterday's budget gave a very strong indication that the Government has no concept, or sense, of the urgency of the homeless crisis in our society. The Government is not possessed of any sense of urgency in relation to it, as eloquently articulated yesterday evening by Fr. Peter McVerry in his reaction to the lack of any action in the budget on this matter. It is interesting to note that when Focus Ireland set up an action team in 2012, an average of eight new families were presenting as homeless in Dublin every month. This figure rose to 40 families per month in 2014. It has now risen to 65 to 70 families per month in the first half of 2015. More than two new families are becoming homeless every single day, yet there is no action from the Government to arrest the situation. The number of children sleeping in emergency homeless accommodation has almost doubled since October 2014. Groups such as the Simon Community, Threshold and many other non-governmental agencies are extremely frustrated by the lack of action on this particular issue.
In the immediate term, the Government could take preventative measures to prevent more families from becoming homeless by introducing rent certainty measures and increasing the rent supplement. There seems to be some extraordinary reluctance, if not a stubbornness, to move on the rent certainty issue or to increase the rent supplement. The Simon Community has stated that 92% of properties available to rent are priced beyond the reach of those in receipt of rent supplement. Will the Taoiseach explain why there was no action in yesterday's budget on homelessness? Why will the Government not make a decision on rent certainty and on increasing rent supplement for those who desperately need it to stay in a home or to get back into the housing market?
In many cases, they are quite a distance from Dublin, in particular, and the families have to travel to schools and so on, which is not acceptable. It is not true to say that there was nothing in yesterday's budget for housing. The Minister for Finance signalled that NAMA will provide 20,000 houses between now and 2020. We will open 100 sites across the country in 2016 and will deliver at the mid-point of that up to 80 houses per week. There is a requirement for 10,000 units, whether houses or apartments, in the Dublin area per annum. Only 3,300 were delivered in the past year. Having land, its own money and contractors who build for it, NAMA can provide these units and 90% of them will be provided in the Dublin area. Some 75% of the units will be houses, mainly starter homes, which NAMA will deliver through its own developers.
Last year the Government put €2.2 billion on the table to deal with this legacy issue. Yesterday, in the budget, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform added to that sum. This year €500 million is available to build or acquire new homes. The Government also increased the current allocation for social housing by a further €69 million to €440 million. Money is not the problem here.
As was pointed out by the Minister for Finance, we had three reports in the 1980s by Mr. Peter Bacon which were supposed to sort out all of this but things actually got worse. The Government will not interfere-----
-----in a way that will make things worse. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, is working very hard on this issue and we hope we will be able to bring in a number of measures that will improve the position.
Believe me, I am frustrated about the fact that this is not moving in the way that one would want. We have PPPs, private builders, NAMA, social housing and modular units. Those are five issues. The money is in place and they should be moving.
He has not interfered and it is the absence of interference which is exasperating the problem. The Taoiseach spoke about the rent supplement. A decision has not been made to increase it. He mentioned discretionary powers of welfare officers. In Limerick, only six cases were successful in the past 12 months. The Taoiseach should stop with the fig leaves.
He was rebuffed by the Taoiseach and Fine Gael in the lead up to this particular budget but I am more interested in the figures since October 2014. If we look at the figures prepared by Threshold and the Simon Community , we have gone from eight families seeking emergency accommodation in October 2014 to a situation now where approximately 70 families seek such accommodation weekly. The problem with that is-----
-----two new families a day are now seeking emergency accommodation with no action being taken on rent certainty or on rent supplement. Rents are projected to increase by 20% in Dublin alone over the next 12 months, with thousands more repossessions in line. The banks are talking about 25,000 repossessions next year.
The inaction is the core of the issue. The Government has run out of road and ideas. There have been more announcements made than houses built. Ten local authorities did not build a single house last year. In 2009 there was approximately €670 million available.
I never hear interviews with anybody who has been allocated a house that was a void and closed up and which has now been returned to proper condition. There were 2,333 units returned to use in 2014 and the most recent projections show that there will be 2,500 by the end of the year. Dublin City Council has reported that 633 vacant units have been returned to use to date, with a projection that the number will be 765 by the end of the year. To date Cork City Council has returned 64 units to use and is projecting that the number will be 215 by the end of the year. To date Cork County Council has delivered 30 units and will have 71 by the end of the year.
-----to discuss their targets, the money they have been given and the objective of getting on with the business to be done. Why is that when the Minister provides money and objectives and tells local authorities to get on with building social housing-----
-----that we are not seeing the results? Is it that some of them do not want to build? They might prefer to have agencies to do it for them. A sum of €37.16 million has been confirmed for the Dublin region which represents more than 70% of that figure. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive has confirmed that its expenditure has been €33.4 million. That is the money being spent and action is being taken-----
Since last weekend's tragedy at Carrickmines, disturbing information has come to light on conditions on halting sites across the State and the lack of investment by the Government and local authorities in recent years. A tremendous article by Kitty Holland was published in The Irish Timeswhich made devastating reading. The Carrickmines site was overcrowded; 29 people were sleeping in cabins and caravans at the time of the fire. Dún Laoighaire-Rathdown County Council is one of 15 local authorities in the State that have drawn down no funding this year for Traveller accommodation. In the past seven years funding for accommodating members of the Traveller community has been cut by a shocking 93%, from €70 million in 2008 to €4.3 million this year. Of the 10,226 Traveller families in the State, 445 are living on unauthorised sites by the side of the road without anything but the most basic facilities. Some 104 families are living on basic serviced sites such as that on Glenamuck Road. A further 223 families are sharing halting site bays with other families, while 37 are sharing basic halting site bays with other families. In addition, 727 families are sharing houses with other families. A total of 1,536 families are living in overcrowded or unsafe conditions. This cannot continue. Will the Government immediately work with the Traveller representative groups to ensure lessons are learned from this tragedy and that Traveller families across the State will be provided with the safe and adequate accommodation they need?
The answer is "Yes". I visited the scene of the inferno at Carrickmines. The site, although a temporary site established eight or ten years ago, was very neat and clean. However, the units were located around the perimeter and made from the material that had caught fire, as a result of which ten people had lost their lives. It is an extraordinary tragedy and so sad for everybody involved.
The Deputy is aware that an audit is being carried out of all Traveller accommodation units and halting sites throughout the country, many of them in locations with which I am familiar. In Priory Hall, Longboat Quay and other locations around the country, places where all building regulations and planning conditions were supposed to be complied with, there have been fire traps. In this case I assume the corrosive smoke was responsible for people being unable to move when the fire occurred and it resulted in that difficulty.
Accommodation for Travellers is provided through a range of measures. There are the standard local authority housing units financed by way of the Department for the Environment, Community and Local Government's capital allocation for social housing. There is also Traveller-specific accommodation financed by the Department, while the purchase of private housing is assisted by the State and through Travellers' own resources. An approved Traveller housing body, CENA, has recently been launched and is due to commence operations shortly.
It is open to Travellers to opt for any form of accommodation. The 2014 annual count of Traveller families showed that of 10,226 families, the majority, 35%, were accommodated in standard social housing, 26% in private rented accommodation and 5% in assisted private housing, while 6% had been housed using their own resources. A total of 13% were accommodated in group homes or permanent halting sites and bays, 9% were sharing accommodation, 1% were on transient sites and 4% on unauthorised sites. That 4% represents a significant reduction from the first annual count which took place in 1999 and showed that 25% of Travellers were living on unauthorised sites. The reduction is due to significant investment in Traveller-specific accommodation such as group housing schemes and housing sites in recent years.
The level of investment was reduced in recent years, similar to many other forms of investment. Notwithstanding this, €400 million has been invested in the provision and support of this type of Traveller accommodation over the period. Every local authority has a five year programme to accelerate the provision of Traveller-specific accommodation. This requires particular expertise in the consultation process in the provision of the type of accommodation required for Traveller families. The programmes started in 2000 and the current programmes run from 2014 to 2018. During the period of the last programme 500 accommodation units were delivered.
Every council has a local Traveller accommodation consultative committee comprising local authority officials, members of Traveller representative groups and other relevant bodies, including public representatives. The committees assist in the preparation of the five-year rolling programmes and oversee implementation where possible. The National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC, is a national body appointed by the Minister. It comprises representatives of the different State agencies and so forth. It is the national platform for consultation.
The site in Glenamuck was not an unauthorised site. It was a temporary site, with services provided by the local authority, pending the putting in place of more permanent accommodation for the families. I understand a site at Glen Druid in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown has been identified by the local authority in its Traveller accommodation programme for the period 2014 to 2018 for a group housing scheme of five units to meet the needs of the residents of Glenamuck. Funding approval has been granted by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and work is expected to be completed in 2017-18. In the interim, the necessity for a fully serviced, temporary site in the area for these families is being discussed and negotiated with a view to it being ready for occupation in the near future.
I trust the Taoiseach will address the investment issues I have raised and also the lack of leadership that has been shown, not only at Government level but also at local level across the State.
I have one more request to make of the Taoiseach today. For too long there has been a wall of distrust between the settled and Traveller communities in this State. Yesterday, some local residents in Glenamuck formed a blockade in protest at the plans to rehouse, on an emergency basis, those who have been left homeless by this inferno. It is a depressing spectacle but it reflects the wall of distrust that has been in existence for many years. We need citizens to show compassion and I hope the residents - who are meeting the council today - can facilitate this emergency arrangement.
There is a need for education and understanding between the two communities, and that is a two-way process. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality recommended quite some time ago that this State recognise the ethnicity of our Traveller people, something that has been called for by international human rights bodies to which we subscribe. It is time for the State to respect the unique contribution of Traveller communities in terms of their music, their language and their adherence to the ancient nomadic ways. We need to teach their history in our schools and break down the barriers and the walls that exist. It is time for this State to build the bridges of understanding. It is time to build on the solidarity that is there after this horrific tragedy.
Will the Taoiseach stand up in this Chamber and recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller people? Will he show the necessary leadership, although it will not just be required by him but by elected representatives across the State? Can we finally address the injustice of the report on itinerancy from the 1960s that perceived this as a dirty problem that had to be swept under the carpet? Can we once and for all be honest about the huge wall of distrust and take down the barriers? Can we recognise their ethnicity and start from there?
The first point the Deputy makes is important. Clearly, the vast majority of communities in this country are prepared to work with the local authorities and different agencies in their own interests. This is a very sensitive issue in that the funerals involved have not even taken place yet, although, to balance that, there has to be an explanation to any community of what a local authority intends to do as an emergency measure. I think that is only the normal courtesy that should apply in any circumstance and I hope that matter can be dealt with today in order to provide temporary accommodation for those remaining families at the Glenamuck temporary site.
In respect of the deeper question the Deputy raises, this is an issue that is reacted to in different ways in different parts of the country and, in many cases, it is based on unfortunate experiences that have taken place. The Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has done quite a deal of work on this and has brought a report to the Cabinet sub-committee in respect of the question of ethnicity and whether that be recognised or not. I do not think there is any constitutional impediment to this but we have asked the Minister of State to examine a number of issues arising from his presentation. He will revert to the committee in due course on that matter.
This morning in Loughrea, County Galway, three people are in the dock, having been accused for defending their own private property. This has come about because, in 1997, at a time when the Taoiseach was a member of Government, the current President signed off on legislation that has caused major problems throughout the country. As I said, these people are accused of defending their own private property. The Peatlands Council has been set up for turf cutters. I spoke to the Taoiseach one night when he asked me to go to a forum. We co-operated every step of the way but, sadly, the drive and initiative is not there from the State body, the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Instead of trying to solve a problem, it is trying to make criminals out of people who have never been in trouble in their lives. This is not a solution to a problem and all it will do is create bigger difficulties. It is now recognised, not by us but by the so-called experts, that up to 40% of the science used is completely wrong. There are solutions, however. One of them may be that, given the announcement that Bord na Móna has 80,000 ha which it is talking of shutting down, some of that ground could be used to ensure that the burden on people's private property is alleviated. Taking legal action against people who never saw the inside of a court in their lives will not solve this problem.
I meet representatives from the National Parks and Wildlife Service every six weeks. I will put my shoulder to the wheel in resolving this matter, whatever way it needs to be resolved. However, the one thing we keep hearing every day is Europe. I ask the Taoiseach to use his influence with these technocrats in Europe - these faceless bureaucrats who are infringing on people's property rights. People are willing to co-operate but there is a fear among our civil servants that when they go over, they will be told "No". Does the Taoiseach want to see a resolution to this problem or does he want to see people in danger of ending up in jail, like this morning? Whatever it takes, will he go to Europe and explain that this is a complex problem? Farmers are being driven off their land and turf cutters are being driven off their bogs. This is in the so-called interests of Europe but it is not a fair way. There is a resolution. Will the Taoiseach consider there may be an option in regard to the Bord na Móna land to help resolve the issue?
Yes, I spoke to Deputy Fitzmaurice about this previously and I spoke to his predecessor in the House, who had agreed a certain line of action and then decided to renege upon that. I cannot comment on any case that is before the courts, as the Deputy is well aware. The law of the land will apply and is determined by members of the Judiciary.
As Minister, Deputy Deenihan worked exceptionally hard to try to bring about a resolution to these kinds of cases. It is not that people are being driven off the land, as Deputy Fitzmaurice says. The central feature was that they wanted to be able to cut turf, as their forefathers did, on bogs which are determined to be part of a specific environmental entity. Offers were made - and have been accepted - in respect of either free turf or compensation for not cutting bogs and that scheme is still in operation.
The Deputy says people are willing to co-operate. I take his point about the longer-term involvement of Bord na Móna in terms of peat cutting. The offers were there for alternative bogs to be made available so that people could either cut the turf themselves or have it cut for them. However, because of geography, it was not feasible to do that in many cases as there was not a suitable alternative bog available in the localities, as the Deputy is well aware.
I would like to see a resolution to this and I am glad to hear Deputy Fitzmaurice say he is willing to work towards that. Without going near the European personnel at all, I believe a degree of common sense might sort this out for everybody, whereby they can have access to turf and the compensation fund, because the determination of the environmental specifics of the boglands in question has been set for quite some time. I regret it has gone this far. I cannot and will not interfere in anything to do with cases before the courts. However, I would like to see a resolution to this from everybody's point of view.
The boglands in question are not being taken from anybody, nor was that ever the intention. The Boora bog in the Midlands opened up further to tourists recently. It has significant capacity for tourism and offers a quality programme which explains to people from around the country and outside of it what bogs are about - their history, the important part they have played in Ireland over the centuries and their future from the point of view of hospitality and tourism.
The Taoiseach spoke about Bord na Móna and options, but would he move to a rented house if he owned his own house? He would not, but that was the option there for bog owners. Therefore, it was a non-option.
The Taoiseach must understand that there are 35 more of these areas coming down the line at the end of next year. Nothing has been resolved. In 17 years only two of those areas have been resolved and nothing has been resolved for 51 others. I welcome the Taoiseach's consideration of the option involving Bord na Móna, but I have spoken to officials time and again and over that time have heard the same response over and again: "We do not know what Europe will say or whether it will accept it or not." Let us get one thing straight. The property is private people's property. Either we own our land or we do not. Does Europe think it owns our land as well as the moneys we are paying it for bank debt?
The Taoiseach is well aware of this. This is happening even in his county of Mayo. In Limerick and west Cork also there are problems where farmers in marginal lands cannot clean a drain or fence their lands.
What can they do? Will the Taoiseach go to Europe and explain to these "people", whoever they may be that we will not tolerate being bullied like this? We are willing to work with people, but it should not be up to them to make decisions. This should be done in the spirit of partnership, with people working together. It should not be them saying: "You have to get off your private property", because that will not work.
Most houses do not use turf alone for heat and the quality of Bord na Móna products is higher and of a better calorific burning standard than turf cut by conventional means. People retain their ownership and their turbary rights and there is no question of these being interfered with. The issue occurs if they decide to cut turf on an area that has been designated - for some time now - as a specific environmental entity. If the issue is about turf being available to them, the scheme in place is either for lorry loads of turf to be delivered or-----
I understand that. The issue is that they want to continue to cut turf. However, the boglands in question have been designated in a particular way and that is the law that applies. What the Deputy is saying that it is about their opportunity and right to cut their own turf as distinct from having turf from another location provide heat for homes. However, those who have accepted the scheme, the compensation or the opportunity to have turf delivered to them are happy with that decision.
Others have a different point of view. I hope the Deputy's influence in this area will be able to bring about a resolution. I know he has been intensely involved over the past number of years, but I hope the issue can be resolved in everybody's interest.